What infections cause vaginal discharge to change?

There are a number of infections that cause vaginal discharge to change or become unpleasant. Many of these infections can be caused by having sex with someone who has the infection. Questions to think about when considering the causes of different types of infections include:

  • Yeast Infection
    • Is caused by having sex with an infected person? No.
    • What does discharge look like? Thick, white, like cottage cheese.
    • How is the infection treated? Antifungal vaginal creams or pills.
  • Trichomoniasis ("Trick")
    • Is caused by having sex with an infected person? Yes.
    • What does discharge look like? Green, yellow, or gray in color; frothy.
    • How is the infection treated? Antibiotics ordered by your doctor.
  • Bacterial vaginosis (Gardnerella or BV)
    • Is caused by having sex with an infected person? Sometimes. Bacterial vaginosis (BV) can happen if you have unprotected sex with a partner who carries the bacteria that causes BV.
    • What does discharge look like? White discharge that smells fishy.
    • How is the infection treated? Antibiotic pills or vaginal cream ordered by your doctor.
  • Gonorrhea (Clap)
    • Is caused by having sex with an infected person? Yes.
    • What does discharge look like? Cloudy or yellow, but often no symptoms. If not treated, infection may spread, causing pelvic inflammatory disease with pelvic pain.
    • How is the infection treated? Antibiotic pills or shots ordered by your doctor.
  • Chlamydia
    • Is caused by having sex with an infected person? Yes.
    • What does discharge look like? Often no symptoms. If not treated, infection may spread, causing pelvic inflammatory disease with pelvic pain.
    • How is the infection treated? Antibiotic pills ordered by your doctor.

Are there any noninfectious causes of vaginal discharge?

Vaginal discharge is not always caused by an infection. It can also be caused by:

  • An outside object (a foreign body) in or near the vagina. This object is not supposed to be there and can cause the discharge.
  • An irritation or rash from contact with something (an object or chemical) that causes an allergic reaction. This could be:
    • Contact dermatitis
    • Mechanical irritation
    • Chemical irritation
  • A condition called atrophic vaginitis. This can happen after menopause when there is a decrease in estrogen. The lower levels of estrogen cause the walls of the vagina to become dry and thinner than normal.

Why do women get vaginal infections?

Healthcare providers do not yet know all of the reasons why women get vaginal infections. They do know that some types are spread by having sex with an infected person. You might have a higher risk of getting infections if you:

  • Have sex without protection (trichomoniasis, gonorrhea, chlamydia)
  • Have diabetes (yeast)
  • Have many sex partners (trichomoniasis, gonorrhea, chlamydia)
  • Take birth control pills (yeast)
  • Are taking antibiotic medicine (yeast)
  • Have an HIV infection or have a decreased immunity (yeast)

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/30/2019.

References

  • American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Vaginitis. Accessed 9/17/2019.
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Population Affairs. Vaginal Discharge. Accessed 9/17/2019.
  • Bishop G. Clinical Methods: The History, Physical, and Laboratory Examinations. Chapter 172, Vaginal Discharge. Accessed 9/17/2019.

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